Post-war paramilitaries

Paramilitary thugs roaming the streets of Germany

Following the end of the First World War, European countries downsized the size of their militaries. Furthermore, the Treaty of Versailles required Germany – the country seen by the victors as most responsible for causing the war - to limit its armed force to 100,000 soldiers.

As a result, many soldiers simply returned to their pre-war life, but others were unable to do so due to physical or mental disabilities sustained during the war. Many returning troops were unable to settle down and instead joined paramilitary organisations like the Freikorps (Free Corps).

A paramilitary group has the appearance and behaviour of a military force but is not necessarily accountable to a national government.  

The end of the First World War resulted in thousands of disillusioned and angry soldiers returning home to a defeated Germany.

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...many of these soldiers were disillusioned with the outcome of the war...

A number of these Freikorp groups were formed in Germany by radical right-wing nationalists. They became particularly active during the period of the German Revolution and the early years of the Weimar Republic. They were recruited from the ranks of demobilized soldiers who had served in the German army during the First World War.

Many of these soldiers were disillusioned with the outcome of the war and were attracted to the Freikorps as a way to continue fighting and defend the country against perceived threats.

...the Freikorps were also supported by right-wing politicians and military leaders...

The Freikorps were formed in response to the perceived threat of socialist and communist revolutions in Germany. The Freikorps were also supported by right-wing politicians and military leaders, who saw them as a way to maintain order and defend the country against perceived threats.

These leaders provided financial support and weapons to the Freikorps and helped to recruit members.

The Freikorps were funded by right-wing organisations. This Freikorps group  in Berlin, 1919, are equipped with an assault Gun: A (Sturmkanone) Ehrhardt-Henschel 7,62-cm L-30 K-Flak 17.

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A violent outlook

The Free Corps had a violent culture because many of its members had become accustomed to the violence of war and were unable or unwilling to transition from military to civilian life.

"What's the point of study, and what's the good of business or a profession?" former army officers advertised to veterans. “Enemies from within and without are destroying our home. Help us, in the spirit of comradeship and commitment, to re-establish our national defence capability."

Freikorps in Bavaria with a machine gun, 1919.

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German Federal Archive, Munich.

...they were involved in a number of violent clashes with socialist and communist groups....

The government occasionally enlisted Free Corps forces to quash domestic uprisings and protect the country's frontiers from Poles and Bolsheviks.

Members of the Free Corps, on the other hand, felt themselves as devoted to the Volk—the German people as a whole.

The Freikorps were often used to suppress left-wing uprisings and political demonstrations, and they were involved in a number of violent clashes with socialist and communist groups.

They were also involved in the suppression of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919.

...the Freikorps were also responsible for the killing of numerous other left-wing figures...

The Freikorps were involved in a number of assassinations during their brief but tumultuous existence in post-First World War Germany. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two prominent leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, in January 1919.

The Freikorps were also responsible for the killing of numerous other left-wing figures, including the journalist Kurt Eisner, the leader of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and the anarchist Gustav Landauer. These actions were part of a wider campaign of violence against left-wing and socialist movements in Germany, and they contributed to a climate of political instability that would persist throughout the Weimar era.

Kapp Putsch

The German government attempted to disband the Free Corps groups by 1920, but many of them replied by marching on Berlin and declaring that they had seized the government and replaced Chancellor Friedrich Ebert with a man named Wolfgang Kapp, who intended to restore monarchy in Germany. The Kapp Putsch is the name given to this event. (A putsch is a violent attempt to destabilise the government.)

The leaders of the Weimar Republic reclaimed control of the country by calling for a general strike to demand a return to democracy. The strike effectively paralysed Berlin and was a resounding success. Kapp was compelled to resign within days, and the republic was restored.

Free Corps soldiers during their efforts to overthrow the Weimar government and restore the monarchy in an attempted coup known as the Kapp Putsch in March 1920.

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New affiliations

The Freikorps were gradually disbanded over the following years, as the government sought to bring order and stability to the country. However, the legacy of the Freikorps lived on, as many of their members went on to join right-wing political parties and organizations, such as the Nazi Party.

The rise of the Nazi Party came with a resurgence of Freikorps activity, as many members and ex-members were lured to the party's marriage of military and political life, as well as radical nationalism, by joining the Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS).

Hitler saluting an SA parade. Many members of the Freikorps went on the join the SA and SS.

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...Freikorps now had almost no military value and were instead used as thugs by the Nazis...

Unlike during the German Revolution of 1918-19 or their involvement in Eastern Europe, the Freikorps now had almost no military value and were instead used as thugs by the Nazis to engage in street brawls with communists and to break up communist and socialist meetings alongside the SA in order to gain a political advantage.

Furthermore, the Nazis elevated the Freikorps as a symbol of pure German nationalism, anti-communism, and militaristic masculinity in order to co-opt the movement's lasting social and political support.


Adolf Hitler eventually came to regard the Freikorps as a nuisance and potential challenge to his power consolidation.

Several Freikorps members and leaders were targeted for assassination or imprisonment during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, an internal purge of Hitler's rivals inside the Nazi Party, including Freikorps commander Hermann Ehrhardt and SA chief Ernst Röhm.

Despite his prior apparent adulation for the movement, Hitler blasted the Freikorps as lawless "moral degenerates...aimed at the destruction of all existing institutions" and "pathological enemies of the state…[and] enemies of all authority," in his Reichstag speech following the purge.

Freikorps commander Herman Ehrhardt, who was targeted by Hitler during the Night of the Long Knives, although managed to escape to Switzerland and avoided being killed.

Second World War

During the Second World War, there were a few armed groups known as "Freikorps" that were loyal to Germany:

  • Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, a German nationalist militia fighting for the annexation of the Sudetenland into Germany against Czechoslovakia.
  • The National Socialist Workers' Party of Denmark formed the Free Corps Denmark, a Danish volunteer collaborationist force in the Waffen-SS that took part in the Soviet Union invasion.
  • British Free Corps, a British collaborationist Waffen-SS force comprised of British and Dominion POWs.

Sudetendeutsches Freikorps members.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-026-51 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Further reading